Challenge Haneke: Amour Reconsidered

To coincide with its release on DVD, Tony McKiver takes a critical look at Michael Haneke's much vaunted Amour

There has certainly been a lot of love for Amour. Michael Haneke’s study of the impact of a stroke on an elderly married couple not only received the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and two Baftas, but also found itself atop many critics’ lists of best films in Sight and Sound’s round-up of 2012. This comes as no surprise given the reception that greeted its premiere screening in competition at Cannes back in May, where the acclaim of critics was somewhat unusually in line with the opinion of jurors who awarded it the Palme d’Or. The film’s subject matter and Haneke’s reputation orient critics and viewers to expect something powerful and thoughtful, and most reviews, including Peter Bradshaw’s brace for The Guardian, praise the film for delivering just that. What has been celebrated as a masterful chamber piece, however, could with equal accuracy be described as being more than a little reminiscent of a disease-of-the-week TV movie.

Amour’s mode of presentation may be more sober and distant than that favoured by Brian’s Song or Who Will Love My Children?, but the ultimate effect is the same: We watch as some happy existence is troubled by the arrival of illness, and the bonds of love are tested as a doomed wife is stripped of her faculties and her dignity. In the end, the husband grabs a pillow to administer a mercy-killing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Christmas Day episode of Corrie or Eastenders. As much as any soap opera, Amour tightens a melodramatic screw to elicit a response from its audience. In the end, this isn’t some unfamiliar arty detached view on life with an illness, it’s a conventional story of love, in which illness is used to forge an emotional arc.

So why then is Haneke’s film weighed down with praise and awards, while the more conventional cinematic or, more usually, televisual presentation of an illness story is viewed as pap designed to appeal to undiscerning lowbrows? I would argue that, as is often the case, our opinions are shaped as much by what surrounds the film as by what the film contains.

Firstly, there is Haneke’s own reputation as one of the great auteurs working in cinema today. The gift for cruelty and sadism he has demonstrated so powerfully in the past intimidates viewers and critics approaching any new work, insisting that we watch carefully, listen closely and, above all, take seriously what the film presents. Placed up against the other works in his filmography, however, Amour is something of a disappointment. There is nothing in it to compare with the mood of dread punctured by terrible surprise of Caché, or the breathtaking cruelty of The White Ribbon. The cachet Haneke has built up with his earlier films also encourages the viewer to indulge in all kinds of allegorical speculation about the meaning of the details we are presented with in Amour, such as the moment a pigeon makes its way into the apartment and takes some deliberate shooing to find its way out again. The actual meaning of the pigeon scene, if any, is not available to us, but we take comfort from its presence, reminding us that this isn’t simply a story about an old couple getting older. The power of the idea of the auteur is such that we are encouraged to shift blame away from the film for its banality, and seek the fault within ourselves for our incapacity to appreciate its inaudible higher frequencies.

Secondly, there is the often overlooked hype of the art-movie circuit—just as real as that of the Hollywood blockbuster, if altogether more subtle. The aim of such publicity remains the same for films big or small, flashy or arty: To create a sense of prestige around a film release that will ensure that the viewer will not only go see the film when it is released, but also spread the word. In some respects, this task is always a little easier for any old art movie than any old action flick. Art films carry about them the improving air of a good book or a Radio Four documentary, in contrast to the guilty-secret sugar-rush indulgence of Hollywood blockbusters. Nobody is twisting a conversation in a direction that allows them to publicise their viewing of Jack Reacher at the Cineworld, but seeing Amour is an accomplishment almost worthy of record in the parish notes. This sense of unimpeachability is reflected in the press kit for Amour, consisting of a brief five-line synopsis and a lengthy list of all of the awards Haneke’s films have won.

Thirdly, there is the unavoidable fact that this is a French film by an Austrian auteur, and therefore something best handled as “European.” As much as people here are amused by the stilted and absurdly respectful way in which Americans sometimes view Great Britain as somehow culturally richer, with everyone speaking like the Windsors and steeped in Shakespeare, there is an undeniable tendency on our part to grant to European filmmakers an authority based as much on ignorance as on insight and appreciation. Amour might seem pedestrian, but, again, the fault lies with those of us who cannot properly appreciate its elusive je ne sais quoi. With perhaps one extra degree of European refinement, the film’s meaning would unfold and open up for us.

Film history often traces the birth of the French New Wave to 1954 and Francois Truffaut’s critical assault on the “tradition of quality” in French cinema in his polemical “A Certain Tendency” article for Cahiers du Cinema. Carving out a space for the experimentation that would distinguish La Nouvelle Vague, he set out to discredit the “tradition of quality” films by citing what might be otherwise taken as their triumphs: “they force, by their ambitiousness, the admiration of the foreign press, defend the French flag twice a year at Cannes and at Venice where, since 1946, they regularly carry off medals, golden lions and grands prix.” He might have been describing Amour. Though it is not one of the “scenarists’ films” decried by Truffaut, Amour is very much part of a contemporary “tradition of quality.” It fits squarely into a festival circuit that, according to Christoph Huber (writing in Cinema Scope, has emerged in the past two decades, and “has become its own market, especially for riskier, unconventional fare, while art houses, certainly in Europe, have become a more cultivated form of the multiplex for the increasingly elderly and “discerning” audiences, dominated by a certain type of interchangeable funding-friendly Euro-projects (with special saturation by French productions), ostensibly still arty by definition, no matter how shamelessly audience-baiting.”

Clearly, Amour is no movie of the week. From the performances by Emmanuelle Riva and the legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant to the wonderful cinematography of Darius Khondji, its quality sings out. No more than the acclaim and awards, however, these advantages are no guarantee of the film’s excellence. From an angle slightly less enthusiastic than that favoured by most critics, we can detect in Amour proof that, as Huber argues, Haneke’s “cinematic work has become less meaningful as it has become more magisterial.”

Amour is out on DVD and Blu-ray via Artificial Eye now and available from Curzon on Demand

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